With the summer season fast approaching, downtown Asheville is emerging from its winter slumber. Summer dresses and tattooed limbs, patios brimming with beer and entrees dot the cityscape. Amid the mass of tourists and pleasure seekers, a gloriously strange concoction of musicians, statue-people and street artists congregate along the avenues to entertain passers-by.
These performers, or buskers, have become synonymous with the downtown experience. Yet despite their contributions to the city’s identity and cultural flavor, tensions over noise, etiquette and shared public spaces remain unresolved among the various entities that cohabit downtown.
In response, the city is seeking definition in its relationship with the busking community, and both buskers and businesses are speaking out about the issues that matter to them in hopes of fostering a healthy relationship in an area of the city where space is at a premium.
Tell it on the streets
In Asheville, like many other municipalities, the public’s understanding of buskers has evolved gradually, says Abby Roach, a performer better-known around town as Abby the Spoon Lady and president of the Asheville Buskers Collective.
“People sometimes get a misunderstanding of what exactly busking is,” she says, noting that people from all walks of life, from students to professional musicians, can be found on the street.
As recently as 2014, the city looked into establishing regulations around busking downtown. In response, local buskers formed the Asheville Buskers Collective, an informal group dedicated to advocating for buskers’ rights in Asheville and acting as a liaison among the busking community, local businesses and city officials.
“The Asheville Buskers Collective has organized to try and reshape that conversation, to say it’s not a threat, it’s an asset, just like any downtown resource,” says Andrew Fletcher, a local musician who got his start busking with the Big Nasty Jazz Band several years ago.
While the proposed rules of 2014 haven’t been implemented yet, Asheville’s Public Safety Committee is still considering regulations around certain aspects of busking downtown, including one of the more contentious modern aspects of street performance — amplification.
Free speech and personal preference
Ask nearly any busker about his or her feelings regarding amplification, and you’ll likely receive a two-part answer. Fletcher and Roach both point to court cases throughout the latter half of the 20th century where cities and municipalities have attempted to regulate or ban amplification among street performers, only to be overruled by courts citing the First Amendment.
But while most buskers will speak up in favor of the right to use amplification, personal preferences often diverge as to when it’s necessary and appropriate to do so. “Personally, I don’t ever intend to use amplification — it’s not my thing,” Roach says, “but that’s the Spoon Lady talking, not the president of the Buskers Collective.”
The divergent opinions on amplified busking as a stylistic choice speak to the greater issue at hand — namely, that buskers aren’t all cut from the same cloth.
“It’s easier to favor your way of doing things over the other guy’s way of doing things,” Fletcher says. “If it’s not traditional music — if it’s rock or something like that, then amplification’s probably going to be more a part of your style.”
Won’t you be my neighbor?
For surrounding brick-and-mortar businesses, relations with the buskers that often adorn their doorsteps is an individualized experience as well.
“I personally enjoy acoustic music, so I’m partial to busking without amplification,” says Peter Pollay, owner of Posana Cafe at Pack Square. “Everyone’s preference is different, and we need to balance that with the comfort of our customers, especially getting into the warmer months with the patio open.”
Some stores, like Mast General, don’t allow amplification on their property, says General Manager Carmen Cabrera. “We play music for our customers, so if it comes from both sides, it can be terrible!”
In public spaces, however, finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs can be difficult because of the organic nature of the busking community and lack of definition between a busker and a panhandler carrying an instrument, Cabrera notes. “I believe there will have to be some sort of permitting, just so we can get everyone on the same page and keep our [local] buskers’ and businesses’ needs at the forefront.”
While many businesses prefer to let buskers self-police rather than involve law enforcement, Roach admits that “buskers tend to not listen to other buskers.” And just as one bad apple can spoil the bunch, one rude busker can impact the entire busking community.
“Occasionally, you have business owners who like busking but don’t like certain buskers,” Fletcher says. He freely admits that he’s a “defender of busking,” not individual buskers.
Roach says she’s impressed by businesses’ willingness to engage the busking community and work together to resolve any issues that may arise.
This collaboration is essential, Fletcher notes, because buskers are part of a greater whole that makes downtown an attractive place for tourists and locals alike. “There’s a bunch of reasons why somebody chooses to spend their money downtown — street musicians are one of them. The local business owner’s also just one of them.”
Other voices, other rules
As Asheville considers what regulations need to be established in regard to busking downtown, officials are taking a close look at what other cities across the country have done.
Savannah, Ga., for instance, updated its rules around street performances in 2012. According to Savannah’s guidelines, buskers must obtain a permit from the city’s Citizen Office to perform on the sidewalks. Applicants undergo criminal background checks and a formal audition. Savannah has also established limits on where a performer can set up shop, when the busker can perform in certain areas and even how a busker is dressed.
For many buskers, Savannah’s increased restrictions have turned them off to the city, says Roach, adding that its once-vibrant busking scene has faded somewhat. “A lot of buskers kind of avoid it altogether. Eventually, you fill out enough forms and you feel like you’re getting a job.”
Comparatively, Asheville is ahead of the curve in understanding busking and its value, says Fletcher. “Nobody asks, ‘What’s busking?’ in Asheville. That tells me that we’ve done a good job in this town of educating people on what busking is and what busking isn’t.”
Much ado about nothing?
So is busking — particularly noisy or amplified busking — really an issue in Asheville? According to data provided by the Asheville Police Department, not really.
Of the 546 noise complaints received by APD between January 2014 and April 2016, only 45 involved street performers. “Any thriving city has noise problems,” Fletcher contends. “To me, the loudest thing I ever hear downtown is taxpayer-funded — that’s the firetrucks.”
Establishing a good working relationship with the Police Department also helps smooth over potential problems, says Roach. “[Police Chief] Tammy Hooper is super nice; I went and spoke with her, and she was asking all the right questions — I was really impressed.”
Another reason Asheville lacks the official regulations other cities impose on buskers, maintains Fletcher, might be because it hasn’t quite reached a point where it needs those kinds of rules. However, “if Asheville keeps on thriving,” he notes, “maybe in another five to 10 years, it’ll be time to have that conversation.”
Room for all
While community relations regarding busking may seem relatively hunky-dory in Asheville compared with other metropolitan areas, local performers say there are still issues to address.
As anyone who spends time downtown probably knows, a good busker on a good day tends to draw a crowd. Currently, the onus is on the busker to police crowds and make sure at least 6 feet of sidewalk is clear for passage.
“That’s really difficult,” says Fletcher. “Crowds aren’t aware this is an issue because they’re just part of a crowd. No busker wants to interrupt a song just to tell people to clear the sidewalk.”
But crowded sidewalks and pedestrians in the streets lead back to perhaps the biggest, most complex issue facing buskers, businesses and the city in general: a limit on available resources. “Silence is a resource, space on a sidewalk is a resource, and we’re reaching their limits,” Fletcher says.
Widening sidewalks, restricting vehicle access on certain streets and nurturing a more “pro-pedestrian” atmosphere, he contends, would not only benefit the busking community but create a more welcoming experience for visitors as well as cut down on noise and pollution.
“Just look at the massive surface area of downtown that’s devoted to cars and how little of it is devoted to people,” Fletcher notes. “I think that a real progressive look at transit issues actually plays into busking.”
Down the road
For the past year, the city has been devising a pilot program as a first step toward future guidelines on street performances and shared space.
The current proposal, available online at ashevillenc.gov, would designate and place certain guidelines and restrictions on high-traffic areas downtown. The city has also looked at ideas like allowing limited merchandise sales at designated performance areas and temporary weekend closures of Wall Street to vehicular traffic.
Based on community input, the city hopes to begin implementing the program later this spring. “We have looked at and are in the process of better regulating busking locations,” says City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, who serves as chair of the Public Safety Committee. “We’ve tried hard to gather input from all concerned parties in this process.”
Regardless of the form regulations take, the busking community hopes that the city will continue to recognize the value and viability buskers offer. “I know it’s difficult because busking is this weird, organic thing that doesn’t really have a description,” Roach says, “but it’s really, really important for folks to keep on playing.
“As flattering as it is to think that people flock to buskers, the truth is buskers flock to people,” she adds. “For us to be able to do what we do, we’ve got to be able to stay in the footprint. What makes Asheville so special is the entire downtown is essentially a village green — we don’t want to lose that.”